Things are looking up for the Miami Heat.
On Sunday in San Antonio, there will be no other choice, as they head into their first regular-season game against Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 Spurs big man who handles like a point guard, shoots like a shooting guard and blocks shots like a cross between Rudy Gobert and Manute Bol.
This won’t be the first exposure for the Heat to the 2023 No. 1 pick out of France, having faced the Spurs in Wembanyama’s preseason home debut.
And yes, the experience left an indelible impression.
As the Heat looked ahead to Sunday’s game at Frost Bank Center, center Thomas Bryant found himself still trying to wrap his head around what he experienced during the Heat’s preseason visit to San Antonio.
“That,” Bryant said, “was something very different.”
Bryant is 6 feet 10.
“There’s not too many people that I actually have to look up to,” he said with a smile of both bemusement and trepidation of what comes next, “and that was one of the very few times, I think probably twice in my life, where I actually had to look up to someone and say, ‘Wow, you’re tall.’
“I never thought that would come out of my mouth, to ever say that. It was something different.”
Wembanyama on that night went for 23 points. four rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in 22:51.
It was just a warm-up act.
“He’s gonna take the world by storm,” said Bryant, who is in his seventh season and has seen plenty already. “I don’t say that about a lot of people. But him, you get a different sensation with a No. 1 pick like that. But then, also the hype that goes along with him, he lives up to every last bit of the hype, He’s one of the real ones.”
Having played for the Spurs, Heat swingman Josh Richardson said there could not have been a better landing spot than in San Antonio under coach Gregg Popovich.
“First of all, Pop’s coached some great international players in Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili, the list goes on, even Jakob Poeltl.
“Pop is going to have the right people around him. He’s going to have him playing the right way. He has teammates there who already play the right way.”
Richardson, 30, said even as a veteran he felt growth under Popovich. Now the NBA’s most experienced coach gets to mold his latest big man in the lineage of David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
“He gets to grow under Popovich,” Richardson said of Wembanyama, “and Ginobili is around, still working there, David Robinson’s always there. Tim’s there. So all the guys can gather around him and help him grow.”
When the Heat faced the Spurs in the preseason, most of the veterans remained behind.
Among those who played for the Heat that night was forward Haywood Highsmith, who was limited to 2-of-9 shooting and one rebound against the NBA’s next big thing.
“I mean, he’s 7-4, 7-5 and he can already do guard things, play great defensively,” Highsmith said of the 19-year-old. “And you can tell he’s a competitor and wants to win. He’s not just out there just playing. He really loves basketball and he loves playing.”
Typically, veterans limit praise for such neophytes, somewhat take joy in their travails, as the Knicks did with Wembanyama’s struggles on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
But after just one exhibition matchup, Highsmith said he has seen plenty.
“He’s the full package,” he said. “He’s definitely like a different player than anybody I’ve ever seen. You try to compare him — he’s not like anybody.”
IN THE LANE
HEARD IT BEFORE: As was the case when he was with the Heat, with Erik Spoelstra often standing up for his championship-winning forward, LeBron James this time exited Kaseya Center as an opponent lamenting the lack of respect for his aggressive style. This time, it was after the Los Angeles Lakers’ Monday night loss. “The explanations of what they’re telling me are not consistent with what’s actually happening on the floor,” James said in the wake of that loss, which resulted in the Lakers filing video with the league. “When I went for the dunk attempt against Thomas Bryant, he clearly elbowed, like, arm straight across my face. And I asked him for the explanation, well, one of the refs said that he was straight up, hands straight in the air. Two of the refs said they were blocked and they didn’t see it. One of my transition plays, I was going in transition and got fouled and nobody saw it.”
BUYING IN: Say what you want about the ultimate meaning of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament, which continues Tuesday night for the Heat against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center, but there is no denying that it has added life at a stage of the season that typically has the league as an afterthought. What yet could differentiate the games is the tiebreaker process for quarterfinals berths and homecourt, which includes point differential and total points over the four first-round matchups in each of the six pools. If coaches buy in on that aspect, then that unique element could differentiate it from the mundane of November.
DAYS ON END: Good for the league considering making the draft a two-day process. It is an idea not only without a downside, considering the slow sports portion of the calendar it falls in June, but also casts second-round picks as more than afterthoughts. This has become a league where second-round picks have become significant elements of roster construction, particularly with the addition of a third two-way contract per team. In fact, extending the process to two nights, it is an idea that has merits beyond the draft, with teams acting so quickly after the two rounds to add undrafted players. So there effectively could be an after party, as well, when the likes of Duncan Robinson and Jamal Cain are signed.
TUCKER’S TRAIL: When P.J. Tucker left the Heat in the 2022 offseason, only grudgingly did the Heat agree to go as far as a third guaranteed season, an insistence by Tucker. It turns out, Tucker was one and done with the Philadelphia 76ers, with his inclusion in the James Harden trade to the Los Angeles Clippers. “I wasn’t expecting to get traded, so I didn’t know. It kind of came out of nowhere,” Tucker said. “But you never know with this stuff, man. It’s the NBA. You never know.” Tucker left the Heat for a three-year, $33 million contract that will pay him to his 40th birthday, due $11 million this season and $11.6 million next season on a player option.
10. Players who made the regular-season roster of the Heat’s G League affiliate who either were under contract or signed by the Heat this offseason: Jamal Cain, Justin Champagnie, Caleb Daniels, Cheick Diallo, Jon Elmore, R.J. Hampton, Brandon McCoy, Drew Peterson, Cole Swider and Alondes Williams. Cain, Hampton and Swider are on two-way contracts.